profile: Susan Hope Lanier
Susan Hope Lanier stands in front of a microphone, reading from her first published book, The Game We Play. I seek refuge from the early onset of winter at her reading, held at Chicago’s beloved hole-in-the-wall the Empty Bottle. I sit on a short set of stairs, stage right, nursing a pint of beer and taking in her words. With her circular tortoise-shell eyeglasses, black turtleneck, and bright red high-waisted skirt, Lanier comes across as feminine and intellectual. When introducing her, her editor mentions that this story, “Sophie Salmon,” was a major draw in deciding to publish the book. The audience listens as the title character, Sophie, fails to confront her feelings for a coworker, and worse, her failing health. “She attributes bruises along her arms to clumsiness, her nausea to dehydration, and her general feeling of lousiness to lack of sleep. What she cannot explain away is the sudden appearance of floaters in her left eye. On bright sunny days the small dark spots pan across her vision and cause her eyes to water, and still she will not make an appointment with an optometrist. She does not want to know.”
Lanier reads with a literary cadence that sounds natural, professional; it has required years of practice in front of audiences. She speaks quickly leading into a description, but then her voice slows, drawing out the second half. This pace gives the listener time to take in the implications of her unpretentious, careful prose. “Sophie Salmon” deals with undiagnosed illness, loneliness, and the fear and insecurity of early adulthood. Her other stories, like this one, are tense and sad, but interwoven with bits of humor. Her audience ripples with knowing laughter when she describes Sophie’s coworker: “His most prized possession is his record player. His least prized possession is the fine art degree in graphic design he got from some school no one cares about. Why? Because for the last two years since school he has worked at the stupid Borders on Mag Mile selling people books they will likely never read.” The story resonates with the audience. When her listeners respond, Lanier does not react—her voice remains steady in service of the story, her gaze alternating between the page and the crowd below.
The Game We Play is a collection of 10 short stories that focus on honesty and authenticity in human relationships. Lanier writes about a couple who’ve lost a child, townies stagnating in their hometown, life-altering choices made by reckless youths, and how a father’s hidden life jeopardizes his daughter. Her characters are complex and keep secrets—hence the title, which alludes to the notion of life as game, with strategies and objectives, winners and losers.
“The title came after I wrote the collection,” Lanier explains. “Mainly, I was thinking about the everyday games you play with yourself to make the day bearable. I wasn’t thinking about mind games between people. People can read it that way, but I wasn’t writing about people playing games of the heart, being manipulative. For the most part, my characters aren’t manipulative; they just have a hard time outwardly saying what they feel.”
All the stories deal, in some sense, with the tension created by unspoken psychic pain, or the tragedy of persisting in this state. The characters in Lanier’s stories hold their cards very close. The stories, as a collection, are largely about the difficulty of living authentically, of knowing what one wants, and somehow conveying this aloud to the people one cares about. “The characters are interested in preserving their self-interest, but not in a way that’s manipulative. This centers on self-preservation,” she says. “What goes unspoken versus what’s spoken. I was thinking a lot about little, daily acts of bravery because a good many of the characters are cowards. I think that, in many situations, being truly honest with another person is an act of bravery. Often, people don’t take those leaps because they’re trying to protect themselves.” Her stories are heartfelt and earnest in their portrayal of the consequences of that logic.
The stories, as a collection, are largely about the difficulty of living authentically, of knowing what one wants, and somehow conveying this aloud to the people one cares about.
Half an hour later, her reading is over and Lanier descends from the stage. Her editor teases her over her favorite baseball team, the Washington Nationals. Lanier’s seriousness has softened; she laughs and feigns outrage while he ridicules the Nationals’ losses. She sits down next to me on the stairs, accepts a beer from a friend, and exhales, her new paperback folded tightly in her hand. In conversation, Lanier is funny and eloquent, breaking the ice with an anecdote about her recent East Coast tour. “I tripped over the only log in Brooklyn,” she laughs. “That’s pretty much the wildest thing that happened.”
Lanier’s writing has been compared to Raymond Carver’s, and justifiably so. She presents her suffering characters with exacting prose in a small space, exemplifying the power and weight an American short story can carry. Lanier is drawn to simplicity in her prose. Her words are conspicuously understated and sparse in a way that takes the listener along, but seems painstaking to craft. “What I’m most effective at is finding the simplest way to show something,” she says, “Sometimes a simpler style has a bigger emotional push.” In her collection, she often sets the mood in a half page or less.
“I write for discovery more than anything else,” Lanier explains. “I don’t plan out stories. It feels like making a collage. I write a lot of different scenes; then I figure out what scenes belong together. I think that’s why there are themes that appear throughout the book—a scene from one story may have originally been intended for a different one.”
In “Raz-Jan,” she steps far outside her comfort zone, painting the relationship between first generation Iranian academic Hadi Elahi and his only son, Baraz. Here, Lanier treads with empathy, carrying her reader with deliberate, straightforward language. In one meaningful scene, Hadi Elahi falls asleep at his desk, tense from anxiety and exhaustion over the emotional distance between him and his teenage boy. Lanier smoothly transitions into the father’s dream—he and his son, a very young child in the dream, play on a California beach. For a time, the father tells stories; his delighted son screams for more, and there is calm. Then, “The entire beach is underwater. It’s as if he is looking out from a pair of blue-tinted glasses. No one else has noticed the phenomenon, least of all Raz, who mouths ‘More Father. More stories,’ and claps twice, four air bubbles floating from his lips up toward the sky. Hadi wants his son to notice what is happening to the world.” The extended scene is surreal and beautiful: a nightmare, a memory, a metaphor for the crisis of misunderstanding between father and son as time takes them forward, always seemingly farther away from one another.
In this story and others, Lanier is mindful and self-aware regarding the implications of storytelling from a cultural vantage point that is not her own. “I don’t have a good answer to the literary question of who has the right to tell what type of story,” she explains. “I don’t know where the line is, but it’s somewhere and it’s personal… I wanted to respectfully convey an immigrant family living with the same type of problems as other American families. Also, since the story is set in Northern Virginia, where I’m from, I wanted to convey the diversity of the population there. I’d like to think that the best writing is writing that puts people in other people’s shoes, from a place of empathy. If one can’t take liberties in fiction to do that,” she asks, “then what is fiction for?"
Lanier’s stories, despite the gravity of the subject matter, are not without humor. They are deeply sad, but they are also funny. One of her most humorous stories, “Selflessly With Pleasure,” was written for the Seven Deadly Sins reading series at Café Mustache in Chicago. She didn’t realize its full comedic potential until the night of the reading. “I wrote it thinking it was funny, but you often don’t know that something’s funny until you read it in front of an audience,” she tells me. “I wrote the story amusing myself, but through editing the story became very, deeply sad. Humor and sadness go hand-in-hand.” In one striking scene from the story, a hot pink strap-on sex toy peeks out from underneath a somewhat sexually repressed housewife’s bathrobe. In a sincere, honest exploration of the woman’s relationship with her husband, this image is deeply endearing, real, desperate, and humorous. I ask Lanier if writing this way comes naturally to her, or if she adds humor in afterward, to buoy the sober content.
“If I tried to add in humor after the fact, it wouldn’t be funny,” she argues. “There’s something really funny about a sad sack sometimes. Somewhat counter-intuitively, highlighting the humorous parts of a character’s existence can make them sadder, and vice versa. I couldn’t write a story that took its characters too, too seriously.” Her stories show the priceless humor often contained in the daily indignities we all face.
Lanier didn’t always identify as a writer. Growing up, she learned to read later than most other kids due to vision problems. Some fourth grade teachers suspected her trouble might be dyslexia, but it turned out that she had weak eye muscles. That year, she learned to read with combined vision therapy and conspicuous bifocals—the type that elementary school nightmares are made of. “At therapy, I stared at spinning targets and did all these weird exercises,” she recalls. “Sometimes I still feel like I’m making up for lost time.”
Although she learned to read well, she struggled through English classes all the way through high school. “The way I grew up, the worst grades I got in middle school and high school were in English. I felt like I was consistently told that I could not write. The bad grades somehow made reading joyless. I didn’t learn to enjoy reading until college,” she confesses.
Lanier gravitated, instead, toward photography. Both of her grandfathers were photographers, and she would obsess over their old Kodak slides, overcome with nostalgia. “I became obsessed because I felt like I missed my family’s heyday,” she remembers. “I used to ask why I couldn’t have been part of that generation.” Her parents were supportive, constructing a darkroom in the family basement using some of her paternal grandfather’s old industrial photo equipment. “It became my identity,” Lanier says. “I was the weird photo kid in high school, so I went to college to study it. It wasn’t really a question, I was going to be a photographer.”
She studied photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) and became more interested in writing through her photography projects. “What I was doing with my photography was telling stories—I was doing an experimental form of narrative, pairing text with found images,” she reasons. Upon graduation, she moved to Chicago to pursue an MFA at Columbia College.
Last fall, Lanier visited RIT as part of a reading tour to celebrate her book’s publication. She returned to find a lot of support. People showed up and bought books, and former professors were happy and excited for her.
“Rochester was really good,” she says buoyantly of returning to the school. “A couple professors there had really pushed me to get involved with writing.” Her experience is testimony to the importance of mentor figures in the creative identities of young artists, and how negative aspects of the education system can have a ripple effect for years after adolescence.
Lanier’s publisher, Curbside Splendor, is a Chicago-based small press founded in 2009. Publishing 15 to 20 books a year, Curbside’s model is aligned with the do-it-yourself ethos of underground art. The indie publisher puts out nonfiction, novels, poetry, short fiction, and image hybrid texts from artists who often don’t have a presence in a larger literary community. Lanier, who has been based in Chicago for five years, has found a substantive, sustaining home at Curbside.
“The thing that’s really awesome about Curbside is that they take chances on stuff that wouldn’t normally get published, but that does have a readership and its own niche. In some ways,” she argues, “Curbside has really stepped up the level of professionalism in the lit scene in Chicago. There aren’t many indie publishers that put out as many books as Curbside does. This is a way of showcasing the huge amount of talent here in Chicago to bigger literary communities in New York and elsewhere.”
Lanier’s publishing experience has been positive. Fresh off her book tour, Lanier was inspired to quit her day job and focus on writing. When she arrived back in Chicago, she soon realized that she could no longer tolerate her daily grind. “The next morning I woke up, stumbled into a job I didn’t really like, and put in my two week’s notice,” she explains. “I want to focus on writing, and it’s hard to maintain the nine-to-five lifestyle and write.”
Now that Lanier has quit her day job, she’s reading a book a week, both as inspiration for and constructive relief from the novel she’s begun writing. “I’d like to have a draft done by March,” she declares. Jeffrey Eugenides is a major influence on the new work. “I like the way he handles individual versus collective point of view. A lot of writing is seeing how other people do it, and then what works for you.”
Many creative types find Chicago winter to be a good time for working tirelessly, as it’s often too cold to go outside. For Lanier, this winter will be spent amidst a pile of good books and the pages of her writing, with the green shoots of her novel hopefully emerging with the first thaw.
Profile and photography by Sarah Jane Quillin.